Health Anxiety Counselling, Therapy and CBT in St Albans/Hertfordshire and Online
It is natural to experience occasional concerns about our health. In fact, such worries can be beneficial as they can motivate us to adopt healthier habits, like improving our diet, quitting smoking, or engaging in regular exercise. However, some individuals find themselves excessively preoccupied with their health, leading to overwhelming distress that takes control of their lives. This condition is commonly known as health anxiety or hypochondria. If you are currently grappling with health anxiety, remember that you don't have to endure it alone. I am here to support you in addressing this anxiety and reclaiming your life.
While the medical term for this condition is hypochondria, I will use the term health anxiety moving forward, as it carries less negative connotations.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Health Anxiety?
Health anxiety encompasses the tendency to experience excessive worry regarding one's health, even in the absence of substantial medical grounds. This can manifest as persistent concerns about having serious illnesses such as cancer, experiencing a stroke, or being afflicted with HIV/AIDS, despite lacking medical evidence to substantiate these fears.
Individuals with health anxiety commonly exhibit a range of behaviors. You may identify with some or all of the following:
Frequently seeking reassurance from others, including healthcare professionals, family, and friends, regarding health concerns
Engaging in regular online research about symptoms
Frequently checking your body for signs of illness
Avoiding situations or places associated with illness, such as GP surgeries, hospitals, and being around individuals who are unwell.
Experiencing excessive worry about health and engaging in the aforementioned behaviors can gradually disrupt various aspects of individuals' lives, including work, relationships, and leisure activities. This can subsequently give rise to additional emotional challenges, such as depression. It is also frequently observed for individuals with health anxiety to experience co-occurring Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
What Causes Health Anxiety and Keeps in Going?
Several experiences can contribute to an increased likelihood of developing health anxiety:
Having personally encountered a significant physical health issue or witnessing a close person going through one
Experiencing the loss of a loved one
Having a family member who struggles with health anxiety
Being exposed to negative or alarming information in the media, such as stories of misdiagnoses or severe and unpleasant illnesses
These experiences can instill a sense of vulnerability in individuals, triggering excessive worry and preoccupation with their own health.
Now let's explore some of the factors that contribute to the maintenance of health anxiety:
Anxiety can trigger various uncomfortable and seemingly unusual physical sensations in the body, including increased heart rate, tingling sensations, muscle tension, and difficulties with concentration. Additionally, it is common for everyone to experience occasional minor discomfort in their bodies, such as decreased energy, aches, and small bumps or lumps. However, if an individual already has significant concerns about their health, they may misinterpret these physical sensations as indications of a severe illness. This misinterpretation can further escalate anxiety, causing the physical sensations to intensify. Furthermore, excessive worry about health leads to heightened attention on internal bodily sensations, making it easier to notice the aforementioned physical sensations. It is worth noting that focusing extensively on a physical sensation often results in its amplification, which is a well-established phenomenon.
It is common to have a natural inclination to seek advice and reassurance from others when you are concerned about physical sensations. However, you may have encountered instances where those around you dismiss or downplay your physical experiences, attributing them to being "all in your head." When seeking medical advice, your concerns about your physical symptoms may have been overlooked or disregarded. This can lead to heightened worry and anxiety, as you start to question whether your concerns have been adequately addressed. On the other hand, there might be occasions when your doctor agrees to conduct medical investigations, which subsequently reveal no underlying medical issues. While this may initially provide some reassurance, the relief is often short-lived. Instead, you may find yourself worrying that something has been overlooked or misdiagnosed, fueling further excessive worry. As a result, the cycle of seeking reassurance intensifies in an attempt to attain temporary relief.
How Does Therapy Help Health Anxiety and What are the Best Approaches?
During the initial stages of therapy, your therapist will work with you to develop a comprehensive understanding of your health anxiety, including its origins and the factors that contribute to its persistence. This process can be empowering and provide valuable insights for overcoming it. Within the therapeutic environment, you will have the opportunity to explore your worries and the challenges they present, all within a supportive and non-judgmental space. It's important to recognise that the physical sensations you experience are valid experiences. However, if medical causes have been ruled out and you continue to excessively worry about your health, therapy can help you understand that these sensations often stem from normal physiological responses, rather than indicating a serious illness.
Your health anxiety therapist will also guide you in learning various coping strategies to effectively address your health anxiety. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is commonly recommended for health anxiety due to its proven efficacy supported by research and clinical experience. In CBT for health anxiety, the behaviors associated with your worries will be explored. It is likely that you will discover that although these behaviors provide temporary relief, they ultimately contribute to increased anxiety in the long run. Your therapist will assist you in challenging your worries and recognising how your anxiety contributes to the experience of unpleasant physical sensations. Throughout the course of therapy, you will develop the necessary skills to effectively manage your health concerns, allowing you to regain control of your life without being hindered by excessive worries.
Below is a typical vicious cycle experienced by individuals with health anxiety, as depicted within the framework of CBT:
Trigger: Sensation of feeling unwell
Thoughts: Heightened sensitivity to bodily changes, intensified focus on perceived bodily changes, thoughts of "I have cancer, I am going to die"
Emotions: Anxiety, stress, feeling overwhelmed
Behaviour: Seeking reassurance from friends, family, and healthcare providers, frequently checking for symptoms or lumps, searching for symptoms online (Provides temporary relief but is short-lived)
Physical Symptoms: Increased heart rate, bodily tension, appearance of lumps/soreness (resulting from excessive probing), cognitive fog, tingling sensations
Alternative psychological approaches that have demonstrated effectiveness in supporting individuals with health anxiety include mindfulness-focused therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
What are the Benefits of Therapy for Health Anxiety?
You don't have to face health anxiety alone. Research and clinical evidence indicate that therapy for health anxiety can bring about several positive outcomes, such as:
Decreased levels of worry
Improved overall quality of life
Increased ability to confront challenging situations despite anxiety
Greater participation in social activities
Moreover, encouragingly, the research suggests that these benefits often have a lasting impact.
How Long Does Therapy For Health Anxiety Last?
The duration of therapy varies based on the severity of health anxiety. Individuals experiencing milder symptoms may achieve substantial progress within six sessions. Typically, people can derive significant benefits from a range of six to twenty-four sessions in total.
If you would like therapy for health anxiety in St Albans/Hertfordshire or online please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or complete the webform below.
Useful Health Anxiety Resources:
St Albans Rooms
21 Victoria Street